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Parental Wisdom from Decades Past

In the mid-20th century, articles for parents encouraged kids’ independence.

Parents' Magazine/Public Domain
Source: Parents' Magazine/Public Domain

A bit more than a year ago, I reviewed, here, Markella Rutherford’s remarkable book, Adult Supervision Required, in which she presented the results of her qualitative analysis of hundreds of articles and advice columns in magazines for parents over the past 100 years. She showed how advice changed, over time, from encouragement of children’s independent activities to what we have today, an obsession with safety and guidance, continuous monitoring, and supervision, which restricts children’s ability to learn how to take responsibility and do things on their own.

More recently, Tony Christopher (executive director of the National Institute for Play) and I attempted to track down some early advice-to-parents articles ourselves, using the newly famous AI program ChatGPT. Here you can see my post showing our initial enthusiasm for this approach followed by our subsequent somewhat embarrassed disappointment, when we learned that the AI program was making stuff up to give us what it figured we wanted to hear. (This, I must say, is one of the human-like qualities of ChatGPT. It will lie to please the questioner.)

Tony then heroically took on the task of searching early parenting articles by more conventional means. He found some wonderful examples, from more than half a century ago. I really wish parents were regularly hearing this kind of advice today. It is the sort of advice that the nonprofit Let Grow (with Lenore Skenazy as president) has been working to get across in today’s much more resistant world.

What follows here are quotes from four of the articles Tony found. To read the complete original articles, you can find them on this page of my website. The headings below are the titles to the articles.

"David’s Journey"

Betty Mills, in Parents' Magazine and Family Home Guide, July 1959, begins as follows:

"I CAN go to the store by myself," David announced with certainty. David is three and a half. The store is across a road and down a path and around a turn, in a small town to which we had just moved after years in the city. "I can go to the store myself, and if you needed something I could buy it," David said.... We thought David was right. So, we let him go, with money in his pocket to buy cookies for the family. … David said ‘Goodbye,’ but he didn’t waste time waving.

Mills then continues with paragraphs about her husband's and her concerns and conversation, as they waited anxiously for David’s return. And then:

We saw a blond head, and then the whole of David, coming sturdily and matter-of-factly along the path, clutching a bag. Full of relief and pride, we moved away from the window, not to shame him with our concern. … David walked in. "Here," he said, holding out the bag. "The change is in the bottom," he explained. "It’s chocolate chip, because we like them." ... I gave David a hug—two hugs. We were very proud of our son, and David knew it. He settled down to eat a cookie that was different from all other cookies because he got it himself.

"Grow with Your Children"

Subhead: It is often hard for parents to keep hands off and allow their children to become increasingly independent. But boys and girls need freedom to grow.

William Murdoch, in Parents’ Magazine, May 1950, begins with this:

We have just seen Pete off for a month at camp. He’s our oldest boy, twelve years old. He is paying for one two-week period with money he earned running errands for neighbors and performing extra domestic chores for his mother and me. We are paying for the other period.

The article continues with a discussion of what Pete learned by earning the money himself and carefully saving it for something he wanted. Then it goes on with discussions of the growing independence of the couple’s two much younger children, including one barely past infancy, and the discipline it takes NOT to give them everything one might want to give them or do for them what they can and want to do for themselves. Then, it concludes with this:

Like other parents, Ruth and I would gladly give our children the moon—if we could and if they wanted it. But children do not ask for such outlandish things. Their chief demand upon us grows as they grow: they want independence even as we wanted it. Our greatest gift to them, after we give them life, is giving up supervision of as many of their acts of living as they can perform and enjoy completely without us. (The bold is mine.)

That last sentence is one I think every parent should frame, put up in their bedroom, and review every morning before starting the day.

"Chores That Children Like to Do"

Selma Fraiberg, child psychotherapist, in Parents’ Magazine and Better Homemaking, April 1964, wrote:

A three-year-old can break up salad greens and prepare puddings from packaged mixes. He can slice bananas and strawberries with a dull table knife. He loves to use an eggbeater… He can cut out cookies. At four or five, a child can use cake mixes and may even be able to measure a cup of milk and crack an egg into the bowl. … My own five-year-old can now take over every step in the making of a stew but the browning of the meat, which I do because it must be done quickly at a high temperature. … She has finally reached the point where she is often a real help and not a pretend help in the kitchen.

Fraiberg goes on to point out that children want to participate in household work when they are very young, and if allowed to do so they will continue participating without complaining as they grow older. They are proud of their contribution and see it as part of being a contributing (not just taking) member of the family. (See my previous post on this idea.) Then, she adds:

Should children be paid for their household jobs? I, personally, would not like to put this work on a fee basis. If sharing of work is part of family living, I don’t know why we should pay for it or give the child the impression he is doing something extraordinary.

"Our Kids Just Play"

Subtitle: Youngsters need free time to dream, to wonder, to find skills and interests of their own. By Jean R. Komailo, in Parents’ Magazine and Family Home Guide, July 1958.

Even in 1958, in some circles (not my parents’ circles, however), some parents were apparently already scheduling their kids’ out-of-school experiences. In this article, Komailo urged parents to resist that temptation. Here are her words:

AT a recent dinner party, I found the ladies deep in chatter about their children—this time about children and lessons, children and camp, children and summer in general. For hours they held forth on music for monotones, the high cost of dancing lessons, and what makes Sammy run the wrong way when the Camp Hobo bus pulls into sight.

Said my hostess, "Jean, you haven’t told us about your children! What will they do this summer?"

Said I: "Just play!"

I gather, ‘just playing’ is out of date. If you love your offspring, you don’t just let him grow. You do something to, with, and for him. The something may range from French lessons to finger painting or it may—through July and August—include eight weeks of organized outdoors.

I’m evidently as unstylish as a backside bustle, but the fact remains that aside from weekly 26 ¼ hours of school in winter and a few chores in summer, my children are unfettered as to time and untutored as to talent. And it doesn’t worry me a bit. …. I can sit back with considerable pride in the simple fact that these two young people show so much promise in the great art of play. I’m not being facetious. I honestly believe all children learn more from unsupervised play than from all the extra-curricular goings-on.

Then, after some discussion of the ways kids play, when free, and the kinds of toys NOT to get, she concludes with this:

Some of my friends go to extremes, giving their children too much organized activity too early, and in the process they make life too easy, thereby stifling the natural curiosity and drives a child has in search of his own knowledge. There is an amusing, if wicked anecdote, which illustrates this phenomenon. It’s about a small boy who looked out the window and spotted another boy climbing a tree with great dexterity. Impressed, he rushed out to congratulate the performer. ... "Say," he shouted. "you’re good at that! Who’s your tree-climbing teacher?"

Must children be taught to play? Not my kids!”

Tragically, we have as a society lost sight in recent decades of such wisdom. The result is that we see young people today with record levels of anxiety, depression, and the sense of hopelessness that comes from not knowing how to do things on their own or how to solve their own problems. For the evidence, see this article, in press at the Journal of Pediatrics, or this blog post summarizing it.

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